The Making Of A Combat Pilot
by G. Sam Piatt
It was a round-about route that led Richard Dick Jenkins from Portsmouth to the controls of a C-47 Skytrain, which evolved from the DC-3 airliner.
The C-47 was the standard transport used by the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. The twin-engine aircraft was a workhorse. It could carry the load up to 10,000 pounds of cargo or 25 troops.
Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower said the C-47 was one of the four principal instruments of the allied victory during the war. It was flown in every airborne forces operation of the war.
Jenkins piloting of the versatile plane came in the Pacific campaigns against the Japanese from early 1944 until mid-1945. He landed on New Guinea in the spring of 1944. He was part of the 403rd Troop Carrier Group, which moved to Biak Island in October, and a member of the 403rds 13th Troop Carrier Squadron operating out of Wakde Island.
Flying an airplane was the farthest thing from Jenkins mind when he graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1939. What was on his mind the most was a girl named Rose Evelyn Hill, whom he met at McKell High School, just across the Ohio River, when she was 15 and he was 16.
He married her in 1940 and began casting about for a job so he could support her. He and Bob Raines opened a gas station at Third and Washington streets in Portsmouth.
I was in there one day washing a car when it came over the radio that Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor (Dec. 7, 1941). We closed the station right away. We already knew gas was going to be rationed. Herb Fairchild, a friend who sold cars, had a car and the three of us headed for Dayton and got jobs at Wright Field, Jenkins said.
Rose Evelyn came up and got her a job in the bank at Wright. Bob Clark, who graduated with him from PHS, came up to Dayton to spend a day with him and check out on a job he had heard about that had something to do with flying. But the office he wanted to check with wouldnt be open until the following Monday.
He asked me to go over Monday and check it out for him and let him know about it, Jenkins said. I went over to check it out and discovered they had a flying school starting the next day and had an opening for one man. I knew I was going to be drafted very soon, so I applied for it and got it. It was over at Patterson Field.
He completed the Civilian Pilot Training Course and got his license. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps Sept. 11, 1942. Now he headed for Texas, which at the time was the birthplace of war pilots.
World War II was a momentous time in the history of flying. It brought the heyday of production of both commercial and military airplanes. Before December 1941 the U.S. Army Air Corps had but a few hundred airplanes. By the end of the war it was the largest Air Force ever assembled with nearly 80,000 airplanes. More than 100 types of airplanes were used by the Army Air Force during World War II as America set the world pace for military and civil aviation.
Jenkins went through training at Hondo, San Antinio and Fort Stockton. It was at San Angelo that he trained under a man he described as the meanest flight instructor known to man.
He was just plain mean, and not many trainees stayed with him, Jenkins said. He sat right behind me in the plane and I had cuts and bruises on the inside surface of my legs where he would hit me with the rudder lever. I stayed with him two weeks. He cussed me out every day, and finally said he had had all he could stomach of me. And I was glad. I went to Lubbock, Texas, where another instructor taught me the stalls and dives and how to pull out at the last minute. And then I got my wings.
They transferred him to combat replacement status and soon he found himself sailing across the Pacific on the Henry Taylor, a transport ship on its first voyage. They sailed through a horrible storm and kept going for 18 days until they hit the South Pacific, where they zigzagged to keep a Japanese submarine from drilling a torpedo into them.
Then came the jungle airfields and jungle flights over New Guinea, Biak, Luzon, the Philippines, carrying troops back and forth in a plane that carried no guns or bombs through antiaircraft flak and now and then a terrible Pacific storm.
He was ferrying troops from one island to another when they flew through a low-lying storm that nearly proved to be his last flight.
Our navigator could not see the sky and he could not see the water. We were flying on instruments. I dropped the plane down low to where I thought we might be able to see the water. Suddenly a mountain rose up from the clouds. I veered off and we missed it, but 15 more seconds and we would have exploded against the side of that mountain.
His combat medals include the American Campaign Medal, The World War II Medal, the Philippine Liberation Medal and medals for the Western Pacific, Luzon, New Guinea and Bismarck campaigns.
He was discharged from active duty as a captain in 1945, but would spend another 10 years in the reserves before finally being discharged as a major.
What he called his worst experience of the war years happened at Lubbock after he had earned his wings there. He was assigned at the time as a flight instructor training Chinese pilots. His friend, Pete Diesner, also a flight instructor, was killed in a crash while training a student, and Jenkins was assigned to accompany the body back to Portsmouth.
Representatives of Melcher Funeral Home, the nicest people you could ever meet, met me at the training base and escorted me back to Portsmouth and to the funeral home, Jenkins said. It nearly killed Petes father that his son had died so young. He wanted the casket opened so he could see him, but I had been instructed not to have it opened. His father took it better after I assured him that the plane did not burn upon crashing and that his son had not died as a result of fire.
After returning home, Jenkins worked for eight years for the Ohio State Highway Patrol, serving at one time as the only trooper in Highland County.
He also operated an A&W Root Beer Stand in Hillsboro and, after selling the one there, operated a similar stand on 17th Street in Portsmouth for 23 years.
He and Rose Evelyn, who died in 2003, have three children, nine grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.
From the time I left Portsmouth High until now, I have managed to have a busy and active lifestyle, and for that I am truly thankful, he said.
G. SAM PIATT can be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 236.
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